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Real Science


Michael Rosenthal

(6/2016) We’ve seen a lot in the news recently about the pros and cons of fracking. Fracking, a nickname for hydraulic fracturing, is a drilling technique used for extracting oil or natural gas from deep underground. The most recent alarm was sounded in a Washington Post editorial discussing induced earthquakes due to this technique. Other criticisms claim fracking can destroy drinking water supplies, pollute the atmosphere, and contribute to the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

Fracking begins with a vertically or angular drilled well from the earth’s surface that goes to a depth of as much as two miles or even more! After the drilling is completed, a fluid is pumped down into the well at high pressure, as much as 9000 pounds per square inch. The pressure achieved fractures surrounding rock, creating fissures and cracks through which oil and gas can flow.

The fluid pumped is water with chemical additives, such as detergents, salts, acids, alcohols, lubricants, and disinfectants. The modified water is called slickwater. The additives make up 0.5 to 2 percent of the water by weight. Sand and ceramic particles are also pumped into the well to assist in propping open the rock fractures.

The liquid that flows back from this process is contaminated water, which may contain such components as radioactive materials, heavy metals, and hydrocarbons, as well as other materials, sometimes toxic. And here is a problem – that of safe wastewater disposal. Ideally, the wastewater should be efficiently collected and sent to a safe disposal facility.

Another problem is the water that was in the pore spaces of the rocks below the surface. This is called formation water. Formation water is usually very salty and may have high levels of radioactive (and thus dangerous) radon gas, that comes from uranium decay.

Thus, proper environmental and human safety issues come with fracking, which makes it expensive and potentially dangerous.

Fracking was invented in 1947 by The Stanolind Oil and Gas Corporation. The first successful commercial application occurred in 1950. It is utilized in Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

Thus, fracking has been used extensively worldwide, but is a fairly recent development in the United States. The number of natural gas wells has almost doubled in the United States from 2000 to 2010, says The Department of Energy, and over 15 million Americans live within a mile of a fracking well. Fracking areas include the Great Plains and the Great Lakes region, covering a lot of square miles. We will talk about environmental impacts in Oklahoma a little later in this article.

The Marcellus Shale region, which reaches from central New York into Ohio, and south to Virginia, is a region particularly attractive to gas drillers. Some call it the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas."

Like other methods of extracting energy producing materials from the earth, safety concerns are present and not trivial. Malfunctions can have serious environmental consequences. In April 2011, a fracking well in Stafford County, PA, malfunctioned and spewed thousands of gallons of contaminated water for more than 12 hours. Researchers from Duke University tested drinking water at 60 sites in Pennsylvania and New York and found that drinking water near fracking sites had high levels of methane, a very dangerous chemical.

Fracking releases toxic chemicals into the air, including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and n-hexane, chemicals for which long-term exposure lead to birth defects, neurological problems, blood disorders, and cancer. Workers may be exposed to dust with high levels of respirable silica. This information was provided by the National Institute for Occupational Safety after a study of 11 sites in five states. Some 150 studies have expressed concerns over such dangers.

The Washington Post published an editorial in April with an additional concern – earthquakes! The U.S. Geological Survey released an earthquake hazard map with a "big, red blob" over Oklahoma. Most Oklahoma quakes have been small, but numerous; however in February, a 5.1 magnitude quake was felt there. Scientists seem to think that fracking is not the primary cause of these quakes, but that a major cause may be the disposal of the wastewater into injection wells, putting pressure on subterranean geology. The major impact of such events has been seen in Western Canada. If wastewater disposal is the major problem here, fracking may be a useful and manageable method to extract oil and gas, if suitable and responsible methods are developed and carried out to dispose of the wastewater.

Of course, as we’ve discussed in previous columns, the bigger problems is how to safely produce the energy we need by a proper mixture of sources and to find ways to conserve energy in our lives and in industry. The use of water power (such as Niagara Falls), wind power, and solar power are good and safe, but limited to certain regions of the country. Nuclear power can be produced anywhere, and America’s nuclear safety record is exceptionally good, but there remains a potential for serious accident issues. Burning fossil fuels is a lot rougher. Environmental pollution, carbon dioxide production and its impact, and air pollution from contaminants are issues we’ve discussed before in these columns. We need to continue to do enlightened planning, develop methods of conservation, improve the technology of our plants, find ways to limit pollution, and reduce wasteful energy usage.

Let’s now move to a more amusing topic. We’ve written before about UFOs and our good friend, Bigfoot. My wife and I visited Roswell in southern New Mexico, where aliens are believed by some to have visited, and whose alien museum and associated activity have provided the area with great tourism attraction. (It is very beautiful, aside from that fact).

A tiny town, about 1700 people, in northwestern New Mexico, Dulce, on the Jicarilla Apache Reservation, is now the center of a story of such alien encounters. The Sante Fe New Mexican reports that Dulce residents have seen flying saucers, UFOs, and fast-moving lights going back and forth in the sky there. Current word is that space aliens are working with the United States government beneath the Archuleta Mesa, a flat-topped mountain that overlooks the town. There is also a resident of the town who claims to have tracked Bigfoot there as well! The town has a casino and hotel, and it welcomes tourists. As Mel Brooks said in The Producers, "Everything is Show Biz".

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal